November 22, 2008

Glitches on Space Station’s New Recycling System

NASA announced Friday that a new water regeneration system onboard the International Space Station, used to recycle urine and other wastewater into drinking water for astronauts, is experiencing glitches.

The $250 million water regeneration system experienced problems that prompted two shutdowns on Thursday and Friday as astronauts attempted to start the distillation process using pre-collected urine samples.

The space shuttle Endeavour delivered the system to the International Space Station this week to prepare the $100 billion outpost for supporting a six-member crew in May. 

Space Station residents need to begin recycling water because the space shuttles, which generate water from their electrical systems, will no longer fly to the station after 2010.  The use of unmanned cargo ships to transport enough water for the crew is cost-prohibitive. 

The problems with the recycling system did not come as a surprise, said mission commentator Rob Navias, who said the trouble seems to be with a sensor. 

The agency expects the system to work well enough for Endeavour's crew to bring back batches of purified water for analysis when the shuttle returns to Earth next week.  Endeavour arrived at the station on Sunday carrying more than seven tons of cargo to support an expanded six-member crew.

In addition to the water recycling equipment, Endeavour delivered two new sleeping compartments, a galley, a second toilet and additional exercise equipment.  Improvements to the station's exterior are also part of the mission.

On Friday, the crew prepared for the third of four spacewalks to repair a malfunctioning rotary joint in the station's truss. The 10-foot-wide joint is required to position solar panels to collect light from the Sun as the outpost orbits 212 miles above the Earth's surface.

Last year, the agency discovered that one of the two joints had been damaged by metal filings.  NASA engineers designed a complex series of spacewalks to repair the joint and prevent the problem from occurring in the other joint.  Space station managers estimate that resolving the problem may require as many as 10 spacewalks, four of which are scheduled for Endeavour's crew.   Of those, two have been completed, despite the loss of a $100,000 tool kit on Tuesday and the accumulation of carbon dioxide in one astronaut's spacesuit during the second spacewalk on Thursday.  The third spacewalk is planned for Saturday.

Endeavour is set to depart the station next Thursday and return to Florida's Kennedy Space Center next Saturday.

The agency plans eight more shuttle missions to the International Space Station, along with a final servicing call to the Hubble Space Telescope, before the fleet is formally retired in 2010.


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